Foreign Affairs

A South Korean ‘Margaret Thatcher?’

This week, current South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun announced he will attend an historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung Il Aug. 28 to 30. Throughout the world, leaders have applauded the step as part of North Korea’s progression out of seclusion.

Many members of South Korea’s conservative Grand National Party, however, including politician Park Geun-hye, have criticized the President’s timing — the summit comes only two weeks after the GNP primary on Aug. 19.

With a background deep in South Korean politics, Park is no stretch when it comes to imagining the results of December’s presidential election. She is the daughter of a former President and First Lady of South Korea, each of whom died in an assassination. Her leadership as a representative of South Korea in the National Assembly, and as chairwoman of the Grand National Party, has given her a boost from former first lady to presidential contender.

Park called for Roh, whose popularity has plummeted, to make known any agenda or agreement struck in order to bring Kim to the table, a statement that fellow GNP candidate Lee Myung-bak echoed.

“Lee said the government will face a troublesome situation if it had struck any secret deal with the North in order for the summit to go ahead,” an article in Korea Times said.

In a poll released Tuesday, Lee, former mayor of Seoul, actually beat Park by four percent for the GNP; other polls have him ahead by as many as 10 points. His lead has been slipping recently as his campaign dealt with allegations of property abuse.

Leader of the party Kang Jae-sup urged both contenders on Monday to stop the bitter fighting that has erupted recently between both campaigns. Lee is currently under investigation for his possible ownership of 96 percent of his brother and brother-in-law’s stocks, which were apparently placed in their names to hide Lee’s possession while he served as mayor. Staffers for Park and Lee have retaliated with negative tapes of the opponent.

The major hurdle for Park will be the presidential primary for the GNP (also called Hannara in Korea) on Aug. 19. With no real frontrunner from the opposition Uri Party — the current president’s own party — the primary may be the deciding vote for this election.

“Public opinion is very important,” Janne Pak, Korean correspondent for USA Journal (Korean-American News Paper), said. “Not my opinion [as a journalist]. Public opinion is pretty much high. And especially taxi drivers, most taxi drivers, they’d like her, to elect.”

Park Geun-hye has proposed many economic measures, including cutting taxes on oil, which benefit the everyday person. As part of her campaign, Park has begun to call her strategy “Parkcherism,” to follow Margaret Thatcher’s example from the early eighties. Britain’s standing then, Park told the Financial Times, is “quite similar to the situation in Korea right now.”

No stranger to international politics, Park visited D.C. and spoke at the National Press Club, to a crowd that included Janne Pak, in February.

“So I met her over [at the Press Club], and had a lot of questions, and took a lot of pictures,” Pak said. “I’m not going to say [she’s] the best politician. Politician is… I don’t trust a politician. I like ‘good for the people.’ For the people, of the people, by the people. She can take care of anything, that way.”

Park’s speech in February was to discuss the “Korean-American Alliance for the 21st Century,” according to Pak, a topic on which Park is notoriously good. “But this government, the current government, has not too good a relationship with the U.S.”

The candidate’s father, Park Chung Hee, was president in the 1960s and ‘70s, after taking over in a military coup in 1961. Business across South Korea improved dramatically. Using often-aggressive means, Park Chung Hee improved relations with Japan — despite protests, which he quashed with martial law — and brought in $800 million in aid. Vietnam brought South Korea even more cash, when the United States sent monetary appreciation for Park’s troop support.

Presently, Park Geun-hye serves as part of the National Assembly, her third term. She had returned to Korea in 1997 during the Asian economic crisis, in which 11 of the 30 companies of the chaebol — the grouping of South Korea’s largest corporations — failed.

“So far, she’s done very good,” Pak said. “She goes all over the regional areas in Korea. And also, she’s pretty good with North Korea. She visited Pyongyang when former President Kim Dae-Jung was president. She visited North Korea — she met Kim Jung Il.”

That meeting took place in 2002, the same year North Korea went public with its nuclear weapons program. Many people were angry with Park’s decision to visit North Korea, said Pak.

“At that time, we didn’t like that she [went] there, you know. ‘Why does she have to meet the enemy? That’s our best enemy! And the potential enemy to the United States,’” Pak said. “But she had to do it. Leaders should know what the enemy [is doing]. So she [found] it out — not because she liked it, but she [went to] find it out for when she’s going to become the president.”

Park described the visit as “the only way we can induce North Korea to open and eventually become more responsible member of the international society.”

Whether or not Park wins the primary, it seems highly unlikely President Roh’s Uri Party will win back the office, with no declared candidates and no listed primary. Roh proposed just after the new year to amend the constitution to allow two, four-year terms instead of the current one, five-year system that has stood since 1987.

“He looked at running for two terms. They said, ‘No way, Jose,’” Pak said. “He tried to change the constitution, just like the United States, two terms. For the U.S., it’s okay, but for Korea, we’re not yet of that mentality.”

The Korean state of mind may be what keeps Park out of office.

“Yes, those people, a lot of them, over 60, over 70… For a female president, they say, ‘No way. It’s the 21st century, it’s too early for that,’” Pak said.


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